Chasing Amish rainbows

Whenever I drive through northern Wisconsin, the sight of Amish people ambling along in their horse-drawn carriages never ceases to cause a double take. They're like rainbows. Always worth a looksie. And just about as approachable. I do, however, have plans to visit with them in the future given their unusual contribution to the agribusiness workforce up in the Northwoods. Quite amazingly, they increasingly stand alongside Mexican workers up there as the primary remaining pools of workers in the particular business area I'm exploring. Before I can get to what they do, I'm struck by how little I know about who they are. Just the basics are still a mystery. Amish vs. Mennonite, for example. I always simply referred to their community near Medford as Amish. Usually with an "um, but I'm not really sure" attached to the description. Thankfully, the Amish have taken to the web to clarify things. They may not be the most up-to-date on design, but the flock that's migrated at least in part to sharing their ways on the web are nonetheless informative. Now I know that the Medford-area Amish are the oldest such community in Wisconsin. I also see that even the Amish bitch about the winter. So are we really all that different? Actually, yes. Unless they're somehow finding their way to this blog right now thanks to a Google search after a dinner party conversation about me brought the subject up. WAY different. Still, I dig the carriages - you gotta give them mad props for keeping that technology fresh.

Clarity found on the road

I drove across a healthy swath of Iowa yesterday. Starting the early morning in Sioux City on the western side of the state. That followed a sprint from the Twin Cities the night prior - 4+ hours on the road with next to no one but longhaul truckers to fly by, ever believing in the saving power of cruise control. There's something well worn yet validating about driving a serious chunk of American highway. The rhythms of shuffling through on an iPod jacked into a rental car stereo being the only essential update on a ritualistic transit that feels occasionally necessary for anyone born in flyover America. After a morning out west, I drove to central Iowa. I eventually made my way into Des Moines where the area around Drake University's campus gave me some evening time to regroup and gather my thoughts over good coffee served by mildly distracted hipsters. Not that the drip coffee served in the gas stations and diners is bad. Tastes change, but the buzz remains the same. Much like that found on the road. I've gone poetically lowball on my accommodations the past two nights - motels, where the free WiFi provides a distraction from the otherwise questionable bedding. That's another update to this America we've all seen shift beneath us. But is it meaningful? Depends on what you do with it, I suppose. Regardless, I've been talking with the sort of people I know so well even if in the particular cases of these Iowans, they're new to me. And then this morning I took a satisfying, mind-clearing run to and through the Iowa State campus (last night's motel was a Super 8 just off I-35 in Ames). I loved how this weekend's NYTimes profile piece on Haruki Murakami gave further voice to how his running sustains him. I share that needful passion. A run in the morning orders my thoughts like no other constitutional act. Especially before, in my case, the day ahead means many many more miles on those highways. Today, more of Iowa. Then, Wisconsin. Like a salmon swimming back upstream. In short doses this sort of migration is what connects me - and maybe more of us than we take time to realize - to the country we miss so much.

Siri, is this Heaven?

I'm off to do some research on the ground in Iowa. Then Wisconsin. With just a touch of Minnesota dusted on my arrival and departure. I'm hoping to do more with Twitter this trip as way of quicker updates and commentary. You can follow me over yonder @ emaggie. This is all the more alluring as a distraction thanks to my brand new iPhone. Which arrived as a result of my old iPhone (a rotary) seemingly throwing itself under the bus at such a time as the new model's arrival. Coincidence? I think not. But whenever I ask Siri wassup with that, she just snickers.

Found fish freak-out

If you have anything to do with fishing or the consumption of fish, the recent news of a disease being spotted in Pacific wild salmon in the general vicinity of the Northwest has to freak you out. That is, it should - if you listen to the experts and the front page news in Seattle over the past week. The concern is a disease called "infectious salmon anemia" or ISA. It has devastated farmed Atlantic salmon populations in Scandinavia and South America. This is the first time it's been seen in North America. Once it shows up, fish act like normal but then die in droves. It lands on my conversational plate not only because I consume wild salmon like a family of brown bears. I'm also becoming attuned to the problems of these sorts of animal industry disease threats. Some well-informed readers might suggest the mental leap to link ISA with "mad cow disease" in terms of separate but equal threats. But what little I know allows even me to see that's a tough epidemiological stretch to make. The link is true, however, in the fact that such diseases share the characteristic of being able to devastate an industry. No matter what you may think about animal industries, these viral threats can knock the snot out of a population. Plus for me, the larger point comes around metaphorically, given that I've been looking at another industry-specific disease with quite similar and equally devastating effects ("aleutian disease virus" or ADV). Which leads me to ask if other examples come to mind. Just yell 'em out - I'd love to hear them. Or we can all just freak out separately, as we fill our respective bomb shelters with wild salmon jerky and vancomycin.

When Judd Apatow puts Seth Rogen in a lab coat, you'll know I'm onto something.

I'd intended to see the movie "Contagion" before heading to Hong Kong. What can I say - I'm a glutton for the sort of punishment that comes from being up to date on cultural discomforts. I'd heard good things. So when I finally got around to seeing it last night, I was struck by not only the obvious strong points - the powerful paranoia that breaks out, the way you almost immediately start counting how often you touch your face, the way everyone thereafter looks like a carrier of some sort. I also had to think that this was yet another recent movie dealing head on with the issue of animal research. Just like in this summer's "Planet of the Apes" where the research subjects are even more prominent (hell, they're right there in the title). Without hopefully giving away anything to those who haven't seen "Contagion", there's a pivotal scene where a monkey's very-human, still-OK response in the lab gives everyone reason for optimism. I'd argue that here again viewers are asked to actively consider animal lab testing. Am I wrong to think this is an increasing storyline? And since movie reviewers are always hard-pressed to find indications of a trend in the current crop of releases, I'd say we're seeing the leading edge of a trend when it comes to portraying animals in the lab. I don't know what this trend could be called - "monkey loving" is my suggestion. I'm not arguing that this perceived trend is necessarily anti-research. Although "monkey research = bad" is certainly the point of "Planet of the Apes". I'm just sayin' that the shorthand for animal testing as a narrative technique feels more out in front and centered. Put that in your banana peel pipe and do what you will with it.

What sounds even worse than a pitch for "Zookeeper 2"

The oddball horrors afoot in Ohio thanks to a private zookeeper who just plain lost it all last night are on top of the national news today. One should expect no less for a story of open season being declared on a rampaging herd of diseased monkeys, tigers, lions and their less banner-headline worthy but still just plain loose compatriots. You can't make this stuff up. When I first heard I was reminded of the mixed reality of one crazed part of south Texas. As opposed to all the other crazy parts. In particular, that of the King Ranch which was for many decades the largest privately-owned tract of land in the United States. The King Ranch now is home to widely diversified business interests. Which happen to include private animal hunting reserves. I learned of that when I visited a neighboring ranch about ten years ago which is owned by the family of friends. When we drove past the massive fences that ring the King Ranch, our friends told of how you could pay to hunt just about anything there. All of it flown in from some other part of the world, and all of it outside of regular hunting season limitations since those species weren't naturally Texan by birth. Aside from a question forming in my mind for Rick Perry at the next GOP debate, I'm left wondering what sort of reaction various groups are going to have to the hunt underway in Ohio. This is a very Jurassic Park sort of moment. Or not - I don't exactly expect diseased monkeys to threaten an amusement park set to open there. But I know better than to ever count nature out.

A time ripe for new coinage - Opportunify Now

One of the well-traveled memes surrounding the various "Occupy (insert location here)" movements around the Nation concerns how social networks are being used. That's the shortest of lazy shorthand - I'm as guilty as the next feller for bringing it up. But I'm nonetheless thinking - and seeing in action - how things like Twitter, Facebook and network updates on YouTube offer a bulletin board for everyone to stick up their "I need a ride to..." and "Looking for a bassist..." equivalent announcements. What might have happened back in the 90s if specific groups of activists had such tools at their disposal? Not just to get people to join whatever action, but to publicize whatever happened after the fact. Just so that there's no confusion given the above and prior mentions of committed people and actions they take - I'm talking in very narrow terms about a very specific cause that was gathering steam in the 90s which I've seen echoes of recently. It should also be noted that these networking tools have a serious double-edge to them. Non-movement individuals can monitor and maybe even claim that they know what's going on. So my questions go to what might be called the off-center or tertiary movements that just may be recently rejuvenated. Not the anti-"Wall Street" or "besmirch the damned influential" movements. For this mental and physical exercise in finding the protest, you must take it a step further. I'm looking at those taking what I've always seen as a class-based argument to a very distended place. Those folks who are now, in effect, saying that they've had a bone to pick for years and this is the time to bring it up again. Opportunify (insert location here), if you will.

With that platform somewhat set, I'm prepping to head to Iowa with these and other questions in the quiver. Iowa, you ask? Believe it or not, the Great State that gave us the fictional Corporal Radar O'Reilly and the setting for the extended Dockers ad that was "Field of Dreams" is indeed an environment rich with material for what I'm researching. Expect many more clues to that end supplied here in the week-plus ahead - both prior to and during my visit. Please check back (or sign up for the email updates using the form in the right hand column to do so). As always, thanks for reading.

Is it possible to understand crazed commitment?

To a certain degree, I'm trying to get inside the mind of a quite particular character - the crazed yet totally committed protester. There are many variations. I'm wrestling with the why and the what behind those exposure seekers or windmill tilters or just plain out of their fool minds they're so into whatever thing crowd. I'll admit being intrigued by that degree of Kool Aid consumption. I don't really have a big history of such cause craziness myself. I've been more often into drive-by activism. Like that thing not long ago over on my long-running personal blog - I somewhat facetiously called for dumping garbage in front of Williams-Sonoma stores after receiving ill treatment. But then I was almost immediately found and satisfied in reply by an awesome PR exec with that company - their intelligence gathering would make the Mossad envious. Another recollection - which came quite out of the blue on a pre-dawn run today - is that of this gonzo dude from a journalism class in college who went deep deep undercover literally posing as a homeless guy. Flat out stayed in a mission, probably even drank anti-freeze and god knows what else with the folks around him, just plain went all native on a story that seemed to come out of left field. I don't know if I liked or even understood that degree of awesome commitment on his part. I think I respected it. Crazy for a cause. Good or way way out there bad - there's something to be said for that. I still don't get it. But I'm trying to understand.

An October stir amidst the falling leaves

For all the blather surrounding the "Occupy (Insert Location Here)" wave, I'm left wondering one thing - why protest in October? Is there something inherently more activist-friendly or inspiring about this time of year? I may be overstating the correlation thanks to the most-cliched historical example (Russia in October of 1917) or the surging focus upon current protests. But I'm also thinking about a much less covered brand new example in the area I'm trying to better understand that has deep roots in October activism. I'd love to hear anyone's crackpot theories about why certain segments of society get their collective Underoos all up in a bunch in October. Maybe it has something to do with the baseball playoffs, or lack thereof for certain folks? Go Brewers, by the way. Or maybe folks get unduly lathered up by overpriced corn mazes? Undiagnosed pumpkin allergies? Yes, these are all highly plausible. Nonetheless, I think the harvest of such ideas is not all in at this point.

More than just Pretty Pursuasion

For all the repetitive reflection offered in response to the sad passing of Steve Jobs, I've been considering another transition. I'm not talking someone who died too young. I'm referring to a band that called it quits after maybe too long - R.E.M. hung it up last month after 31 years together. Plenty of music nerds dissected it, "The Daily Show" did what they do best with it, and maybe a few folks actually got it right. And by "right" I essentially mean that they somehow decided that a band like R.E.M. defies easy summation. And of that band's personalities, Michael Stipe certainly became the front man (no matter how he started out). I bring it up because I've been thinking about people who set out to do one job in particular and then end up striving (evolving?) to affect people's tastes. Steve Jobs certainly did that, maybe with more original intent than most. Just look at all the things he made us think are not only cool, that had been intended to seem essential. I'm willing to argue that Stipe somehow grew into someone with a voice and a determination to have a broader influence on society. I certainly listened to his political posturing, whether or not I always agreed with it. And as such, did what Stipe offered represent a political (or social) cause and effect? I'm not willing to go way out there and say "yes." But I'd still put him in the same category as a figure like Steve Jobs. OK, now stop laughing. Let that one gestate. Reply if you've got something worth sharing. And you're welcome, even if only for a bit of levity in the middle of a Monday afternoon.